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Dublin: 20 °C Friday 25 July, 2014

6 talking points from the opening weekend of the Six Nations

Ireland lead the way after the first round of action, while Scotland prop up the table.

Yoann Huget scored two tries in France's win over England.
Yoann Huget scored two tries in France's win over England.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

France are very interested this year

It’s an old cliché that you never know what you’re going to get with the French, but it looks like we will finally be seeing exactly what this talented squad can produce. Phillipe Saint-André’s men appear to have flaws in their defensive system, but the manner in which they claimed victory over England offers great hope.

While the English will rue their late mental switch-off, the passage of play that led to Gaël Fickou’s winning try was superb from a French point of view. Ambitious offloads, explosive ball carrying, handling skills and awareness of space all featured, but the sheer desire to win the game in Paris was most impressive.

England’s pace and power will cause problems

Stuart Lancaster’s view on that magnificent clash in Paris is likely to revolve around his side having let a brilliant opportunity to win slip. 24-19 ahead with just minutes left, England were in prime position to ensure that a possible Grand Slam tilt got off to the perfect start.

Despite the disappointment, there were many positives for the English. With Danny Care back on from, they attacked with pace, while Owen Farrell looked far more comfortable taking the ball to the line. In the likes of Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan, England have men who will get over the gainline against any team.

Scotland may be facing the wooden spoon

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Scotland’s Alasdair Dickinson, bloodied and beaten. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Overreacting to an opening weekend defeat is the last thing Scott Johnson will be thinking of, but Scotland will find it difficult to pick themselves up after an abject display in Dublin. There were positives in some of their rucking work and the threat of Stuart Hogg, but their set-piece was messy.

Much has been made of their talented back three, led by the searingly quick Hogg, but what use are they if a platform for their abilities cannot be provided? Having shown some quality in Cardiff, Italy will certainly be targeting a home win over the Scots in round three.

Bench impact proves to be vital

The most obvious examples were the contributions of Dimitri Szarzewski and Fickou for France’s winning try, but Morgan made a telling impact off the England bench. Aside from those more notable changes, the likes of Damien Chouly, Yoann Maestro and Alex Goode played important parts in the closing stages.

Ireland emptied their bench against Scotland to finish the game in control of the momentum, while Wales sprung Sam Warburton to help assuage their problems at the breakdown against Italy. Coaches speak about the importance of 23 men endlessly, but their words are now ringing true more than ever.

Which Wales will turn up in Dublin?

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George North gets hauled down by Italy’s Angelo Esposito. ©INPHO/James Crombie.

If it’s the stuttering version that eventually overcame Italy last weekend after a couple of brief scares, then one would have to fancy Ireland’s chances. However, that seems extremely unlikely. Having had a weekend to warm up, an extra day to physically prepare and a good look at their errors, Wales should be a different team.

Ireland took the Welsh apart in the opening half of the 2013 version of this fixture, although Warren Gatland’s men did bounce back late on. Winning the collisions is as vital as ever against Wales, while exposing their aggressive defensive line speed is a possibility. With Paul O’Connell likely to be back for Ireland, the stage is set for a fascinating clash.

This competition is wide open

As suspected, the four leading sides in the Six Nations appear to be evenly-matched this year. Italy suggested that they can prove a thorn in the side for England, Ireland and Wales, while Scotland’s pride will have been dented by the manner of defeat in Dublin.

It is genuinely difficult to pick a championship winner at this stage, possibly even more so than at the start of the opening weekend. France’s stunning late win sees them shoot to favouritism with the bookies, but they face a trip to Cardiff in round three. Who do you see as eventual winners after the first weekend of action?

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